Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bloomberg's State-of-the-City a Mixed Bag for Low-Income New Yorkers

Like many of Mayor Bloomberg's speeches over the last few year’s that touched upon poverty issues, yesterday's State of the City Address (full text can be found here) included a mix of hopeful advances; ambitious and important goals coupled with meager resources to achieve them; troubling omissions; and claims about the supposed success of welfare reform at are misleading at best.

Hopeful Advances

The Mayor indicated that the City will send “tax forms to about 120,000 households who were eligible for City, State and Federal Earned Income Tax Credits in 2003 and 2004 but who never claimed them.” He added -

“The average household is due well over $1,000 - and some are owed considerably more. We're so determined to help New Yorkers get that money that we've already done the math on their tax forms! Now they will simply have to sign the forms, mail them in and get ready to receive money they've already earned. For working families with children, that money is going to make a huge difference in helping them get ahead and it's money that will be spent in their local communities, thereby helping local businesses, as well. By the way, this will generate more in sales tax revenue for the city than our share of the EITC expense.”

NYCCAH's Take: Such expanded EITC outreach is wonderful news, and could put tens of millions of extra dollars into the pockets low-income working New Yorkers.

The Mayor also announced -

“When it comes to improving the odds for poor mothers and infants, it's hard to beat our Nurse Family Partnership program. Through one-on-one nurturing and guidance, NFP helps first-time mothers build stronger futures for themselves and their children. And by this September, we'll have expanded this proven program by more than 50%. Because of its track record of success, I'm a big believer in NFP. … As the NFP shows, improving public health is key to reducing poverty.”
NYCCAH's Take: The Mayor is certainly right about the link between health and poverty, and he should be strongly commended for his strong support of public health measures.

Disconnect Between Goals and Resources

"Still... nearly one in five New Yorkers - many of whom set the alarm clock and punch the time clock every working day - live below the Federal poverty line. Last fall, our Commission for Economic Opportunity presented a realistic, cost-effective roadmap to help thousands of poor New Yorkers help themselves."

NYCCAH's Take: It is indeed vital that the Mayor continues to set poverty reduction as a key goal. That sets a crucial benchmark for future performance.

His speech admitted that about 1.8 million New Yorkers (the meaning of his "nearly one in five" line) now live in poverty, but I couldn’t help but notice that that he said his efforts would only help "thousands." Not hundreds of thousands. Not tens of thousands. Just "thousands." Given that the Mayor takes pride in his use of specific numbers, I don't think the word "thousands" was merely accidental. He has set his bar for success very low indeed. After all, if these efforts only lift thousands above the poverty line, then there will be far more poverty the day the Mayor leaves office than the day he entered it. That’s not a war on poverty --- that's hardly even a heated argument with poverty.

It is certainly helpful that the Mayor has committed $150 million in new funding to combat poverty, but that equals only about $125 per person for each New Yorker living below the meager federal poverty line. Significant additional investments in affordable housing, child care, job training and other areas will be needed to reverse the tide of growing poverty in the city.

Here’s a specific example from yesterday’s speech - about the need to make college more accessible for low-income working people - that further demonstrates the gap between the lofty goals and very limited resources. The Mayor said the City would -

"help working students at CUNY's community colleges step forward to earn higher degrees - and then, higher incomes. Right now, the demands of their jobs prevent far too many of them from completing their studies and without degrees, they often remain among our working poor. So this September the City University will establish dedicated morning, afternoon, and evening tracks, enabling some working students to do all their schoolwork during hours convenient for them. As far as we know, no community college system anywhere has ever attempted this approach. But every successful business offers services that reflect customer needs. And so should government!”

But the Mayor neither announces any way to make such educations more affordable nor announces any reforms to the current City policies that actually work against allowing people who receive public assistance to attend college full-time. It will surely be useful for classes to be held at more convenient times, but if people can’t afford to attend such classes, this improvement is all-but-pointless.

Troubling Omissions

Out of a 6,589-word speech, the Mayor never once used the words “hunger,” hungry” or “food.”

It is no surprise that he failed to mention that hunger, food insecurity, and the use of charitable food pantries and soup kitchens all continued to skyrocket upwards under his watch, but it is a bit surprising that he didn’t even mention that he had agreed to create a the first-ever position, based in his office, to coordinate food policy issues for the City.

It is also no shock that the Mayor also failed to mention that poverty and homelessness are also higher today than the day he took office.

Misleading Claims on Welfare Reform

The Mayor also said: "Over the past five years, we've moved more than 400,000 people from welfare to work. Our welfare rolls are down 18% from 2002 - and are now lower than at any time since 1964."

The facts indicate that the Mayor's welfare claim is likely misleading at best. When he took office in January 2002, there were 459,056 New Yorkers receiving public assistance. As of November 2006 (the last month for which data is available) that number was 380,204, which is only a 78,852 person drop. Thus, if there really were 400,000 people who left the welfare rolls since Bloomberg became Mayor, that likely means than an astounding 321,148 of them came ON the rolls during the Bloomberg Administration before leaving the rolls. Or it could mean that many people on welfare got jobs but stayed on welfare, but that would still make the Mayor’s claim very misleading.

The Mayor's repeated claim that everyone leaving the rolls has a job when they do so is also misleading. According to recent HRA statements, of those public assistance recipients who moved from welfare to work, 88% have retained their jobs after three months, and 75% have stayed employed after six months. Yet the Mayor and others often use this statistic to give the misleading impression that 75% of all welfare-leavers have jobs after six months. That claim glosses over the reality that, as reported by City Limits magazine and never contradicted by the City, only 23% of New Yorkers who leave the welfare rolls report having jobs when they do so. Since only 75% of that 23% report jobs after six months, that means that only l7% of all New Yorkers who leave welfare -- less than one in five -- report having paid employment six months after they leave the rolls.

What happened to the other the other 83%? One possibility is that they obtained well-paying jobs that lifted their income so much that they had such little need of future City help that they didn't even bother to report their new jobs to the City. Another possibility is that they failed to obtain any employment at all, subsequently falling even further into destitution, forcing them to rely upon soup kitchens and food pantries and sometimes even becoming homeless. My largely anecdotal experience in this regard leads to me believe that the first scenario occurred occasionally and the second occurred more frequently, but that most welfare leavers fell between those extremes, perhaps having some full- or part-time work but not earning enough to fully support their families. Yet when it comes to an issue so important, surely we should not have to rely on mere anecdotal experiences. The bottom line is that there is no hard data on what really happens to New Yorkers who leave welfare. To my knowledge, the City has never had a serious study on the long-term impact of welfare reform on past recipients, and New York State has not looked at any such data more recent than March 2001, before the economic downturn.

The way the Mayor keeps claiming success for welfare reform is by moving the goal lines to decrease their performance targets. For instance, in 2003 Mayor Bloomberg set a goal of placing 120,000 welfare recipients in jobs, but ended up placing only 70,410, or 58 percent, of the original goal. But by decreasing the 2004 goal to only 90,000 job placements, when the City was able to place 82,651 people in jobs, the Bloomberg Administration produced a politically appealing (but highly deceptive) chart showing that they had achieved 92 percent of their placement goal in 2004. I don't think they posted such stats for 2005. As of December 2006, HRA had placed only 70,947 people in jobs out of their goal of 85,000 for the year. Thus, even with diminished job placement targets, they aren't even meeting those goals.


Also, I can't help but again notice that the Mayor compares welfare numbers versus 1964, but, in other venues, when he is forced to talk about food stamps, he only uses numbers that go back to 2002, given the false impression that Food Stamp Program participation is much higher than it really is.

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